1.3 Conspiracy Theories 

Ruxandra Buluc, Cristina Arribas, Ana Ćuća


The present section addresses one of the most pressing current challenges in fighting disinformation: conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories have always existed in societies, however, at present, they have gained momentum due to their easy spread and appeal in social media.Moreover, they have begun to corrupt people’s understanding of the world and their willingness to listen to experts and authorities in times of crisis and not only, thus threatening not only the further development of societies but also the very health and security of the communities they live in. The research looks into what conspiracy theories and their characteristics, what effects they have on societal progress and well-being when they become widely accepted. The limitations of the research are given by the fact that, as of yet, it is difficult to identify a rapid bulletproof method of countering their effects, and more work needs to be done in garnering trust in public institutions, authorities, scientists, in order for the public to view conspiracy theories as disreputable attempts to subvert the mechanisms of democratic societies. The response to conspiracy theories is firstly based on raising awareness to how widely spread they are, on what makes them attractive, and how people should respond to them, when they come into contact with them. Secondly, and in the long run, increasing the level of education of the population will lead to their ability to cope when high risk, little information crises occur, which will drain the fertile ground of uncertainty in which conspiracy theories bloom.
The result will be a step-by-step guide to conspiracy theories in order to enhance public comprehension of the phenomenon and raise awareness to the societal dangers it poses.

Main research questions addressed

● What is a conspiracy theory?
● What are the characteristics of conspiracy theories? Why are conspiracy theories attractive?
● How do conspiracy theories affect the common understanding of events?
● Why are conspiracy theories dangerous for societal cohesion?
● How can conspiracy theories be countered? 

Definition of conspiracy theories

Narratives have been generally studied within the field of literary studies. For obvious reasons, they have been linked to art and literary works and associated with the cultural heritage of a society.

Understanding and countering the negative effects that conspiracy theories have on contemporary democratic societies means that first and foremost, it must become clearer what conspiracy theories are and how they can be distinguished from actual conspiracies that have and will continue to exist in society. Uscinski proposes a definition for a conspiracy: “a secret arrangement between two or more actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions to benefit themselves at the expense of the common good” (2018, 48). He also stresses the fact that a real conspiracy refers to events that proper authorities have determined that have actually occurred. The proper authorities have at their disposal the instruments needed to investigate and they are also comprised of people who have the verifiable and certifiable competencies and skills to evaluate and establish what events have actually happened. Problems arise in contemporary societies because there is an increasing distrust in competent authorities as well as in expert knowledge and this fuels the public suspicion of official explanations and their quest for alternative ones, which often contradict official reports and endorse conspiracy theories.

One very well-known example of a conspiracy theory is that 9/11 was an inside job. This conspiracy theory has multiple strands:
   ① 9/11 was planned by the American government;
   ② The American government knew in advance the attacks were going to happen and did nothing to prevent them;
   ③ Tthe attacks were, in fact, planned demolitions staged as terrorist attacks, in order to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and/or to curtail civil liberties by the measures that have been taken since, and/or to create a globalist government.

However, examples do not ease the difficulty of providing an accurate, synthetic and workable definition of conspiracy theories. One of the best known and most widely accepted is Uscinski’s: a conspiracy theory refers “to an explanation of past, ongoing, or future events or circumstances that cites as a main causal factor a small group of powerful persons, the conspirators, acting in secret for their own benefit and against the common good” (Uscinski, 2018). Keeley approaches the definition of conspiracy theories from a logical point of view and as such characterizes them as unwarranted as they propose “an explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons – the conspirators – acting in secret” (1999, 116). Prooijen & van Lange (2014) and Douglas & Sutton (2018) also emphasise the secrecy and nefariousness of the plots expounded in conspiracy theories, as well as their explanatory prowess. Brotherton (2015) points out that conspiracy theories are “are easy ways of telling complicated stories” which provide a means of eliminating complexity and clearly identifying causal relationships and perpetrators.

As previously mentioned, conspiracy theories go against official explanations provided by legitimate, epistemic authorities (Brotherton & Eser, 2015). They make use of weak evidence, small unaccounted for details, endow the conspirators with sinister goals and above average competence. However, no matter how outlandish they may appear, they have serious social consequences: reduced civic engagement, negative attitudes towards environmentalism, vaccination etc.

Moreover, as Cassam (2021) and Oliver & Wood (2014) argue, conspiracy theories have political motivations and promote political ideologies, by providing the compelling explanatory narratives that sway public conviction in the desired ideological direction.
In brief, we propose the following definition for conspiracy theories: they are explanatory causal-based, ideologically laden narratives which depict significant social events or crises as perpetrated by a group of powerful secret actors who solely follow their own nefarious interests, irrespective of the good of the masses. 

Characteristics of conspiracy theories:

1. Conspiracy theories are speculative, meaning that they are “based on conjecture rather than knowledge, educated (or not so educated) guesswork rather than solid evidence” (Cassam, 2021). This aspect is doubled by other characteristics stemming from the fact that they are based on fringe science: they are esoteric, as in they promote strange alternative explanations to official stories. They rely on circumstantial rather than direct evidence, on conjecture rather than solid evidence.

2. Conspiracy theories are contrarian by nature (Cassam 2021, Brotherton, 2015, Wood & Douglas, 2013, Oliver & Wood, 2014, Keeley, 1999). They run counter to the official narrative or view, to the obvious, plausible and acceptable explanations of events. The obvious answer is never correct, as conspiracy theories cast doubt on everything, even the best scientifically supported explanations. An example is this direction is the flat earth conspiracy theory which claims that the scientifically proven fact that the Earth is round is a conspiracy. Instead, conspiracy theories identify the source of any event or of scientific facts in unseen, malevolent forces who aim to harm people and societies and hide their nefarious actions.

3. As a consequence of the fact that they are based on pseudo-science and fringe science or ignorance of science, conspiracy theories are amateurish, as Cassam (2021) explains, referring to the qualifications of amateur sleuths and internet detectives who produce and promote them.

4. Conspiracy theories are premodern (Cassam, 2021, Keeley, 1999, Douglas and Sutton, 2018, Oliver & Wood, 2014), meaning that they attempt to impose order in a random, complex, uncontrollable world in which events, crises are seen by conspiracy theorists to occur as a result of evil machinations not as a result of a conjunction of numerous factors, causes and even coincidence that cannot be and are not controlled by any one person or group of persons. They are based on a Manichean, simplistic worldview, clearly divided into good and bad forces, with no grey areas, and no place for randomness. The lack of control that people experience when faced with tragic events is compensated for by attributing agency, be it malevolent, to a small group of powerful people who could bring about doom. Conspiracy theorists are not paranoid or delusional, but they do experience the need to identify and/or assign intentionality in the environment. They need to rely on the idea that things happen for a reason, that there is a design behind the randomness of events, that a pattern can be identified in haphazard stimuli.

5. Conspiracy theories are self-sealing and self-sustaining belief bubbles which makes them unfalsifiable (Cassam, 2021, Brotherton, 2015, Vermeule & Sunstein, 2009). They are difficult to challenge because any counterargument is met with the challenge “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” which basically incorporates the contrary information into the conspiracy theory itself. This type of logic is unassailable, as any contrary evidence is interpreted as proof that the conspiracy is at work, hiding its machinations from the eyes of the public with a smokescreen of counterarguments. “Self-insulated logic which makes them immune to refutation and they actually thrive on it” (Brotherton, 2015).
Being self-sealing and self-insulating also makes conspiracy theories strong since they are able to incorporate any apparently anomalous piece of information into the unifying theory they propose. As Keeley (1999: 118) explains, conspiracy theories operate with unaccounted for data (data which is not included in the official explanation of the event) and contradictory data (data which goes against the official explanation of the event). These two types of data give rise to questions, which can, in turn, lead to conspiracy theories. As Brotherton (2015) explains, in essence, conspiracy theories are unanswered questions, which try to reveal hidden plots and to alert the masses that the truth is not the one officially presented, but different, always somewhat out of reach, just beyond the next data incongruence.

6. For these reasons, conspiracy theories are very nuanced and complex. The simplest explanation is never sufficient because it cannot account for everything, it cannot account for randomness and coincidence and it does not provide the all-encompassing explanation that the conspiracists’ premodern mindsets seek. “Unified explanation is the sine qua non of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories always explain more than competing theories, because by invoking a conspiracy, they can explain both the data of the received account and the errant data that the received theory fails to explain” (Keeley, 1999, 119). The rule of logic Occam’s razor is suspended, due to the fact that simple does not mean fully explanatory and, therefore, more complexity is needed, even if it is not warranted.

7. In order to reach its end, a conspiracy is, by definition, unknowable to and untraceable by the larger public. This leads to the contradictory nature of conspiracy theories and theorists, who, on the one hand, view conspirators as all-powerful masterminds who are able to protect secrets, control the population, are responsible for all the bad things that happen in the world, etc., and, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists overvalue their own abilities to catch them, to divine their plans and intentions. (Cassam, 2021, Brotherton, 2015, Vermeule & Sunstein, 2009) This raises the question “If the conspirators are so clever, how come they have been rumbled by a bunch of amateurs?” (Cassam, 2021) This question remains unanswered and conspiracy theorists are unfazed by it as they believe they are engaged in a David vs Goliath struggle and that the apparently weak, but in fact vigilant person can outfox the greatest and most potent conspirators. Grimes (2016) points out that it is human nature for conspirators to leak information in the case of real conspiracies. Secrets are hard to keep due to human nature, but once the flaws in human nature are also doubled by technological weaknesses which allow for leaks or hacking, secrets become increasingly hard to handle. Moreover, the more time passes, the more likely people are to talk more freely about that secret, which is why, Grimes argues, it is not feasible to believe in long-standing conspiracy theories. If they had truly existed, they would have become evident.

8. Conspiracy theories form a monological belief system (Goertzel, 1994; Wood, Douglas & Sutton, 2012; Prooijen & van Lange, 2014). This means that each belief supports every other belief, and the more conspiracies a monological thinker believes, the more likely they are to believe new ones as well, regardless of their topic. As Brotherton (2015) further explains, the conspiracist mindset operates according to the slippery slope logic: if one conspiracy theory is true, it could become evidence for others being true. Wood, Douglas & Sutton (2012) and Douglas & Sutton (2018) have discovered the reason behind this. More precisely, the researchers discovered that this monological belief system is not determined by individual conspiracy theories, but by “agreement between individual theories and higher-order beliefs about the world” (Wood, Douglas & Sutton, 2012, 768), such as the idea that the authorities are deceptive and act against public good. Therefore, if a new conspiracy theory is presented in which authorities are seen as being manipulative and secretive it is more easily accepted if the recipients already hold this belief, and, in this case, it will not matter if it contradicts another previously held conspiracy theory.

9. Conspiracy theories purport that people are not merely kept in the dark, they are being actively fooled by the authorities, as all appearances are misleading, and the elites do not have the people’s best interests at heart. Official accounts are only meant to distract public attention from what powerful elites have actually planned, and their intentions are invariably evil and nefarious (Brotherton, 2015; Oliver & Wood, 2014)

10. Conspiracy theories are culturally based. This refers not only to the cultural knowledge and customs derived from the evolution of a specific society, but also to the cultural values that shape the organization and functioning of that particular society. In a broad cross-cultural study, Adam-Troian et al (2020) examined how culture may influence belief in CTs employing culture-as-situated cognition theory, which investigates the ways in which individual cognitions are activated by the particular cultural context the individuals find themselves in. They measured six values: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and indulgence and they concluded that cultural values have a unique predictive power on conspiracy theory belief. More precisely, masculinity and collectivism were robust positive predictors of conspiratorial belief across countries, operationalizations, and levels of measurement.
Moreover, as Cassam (2021) has also indicated, conspiracy theories have an important ideological and political component. Radnitz & Underwood (2015) determined that political values guide belief formation and can anchor and even limit a search for information to that information that is consistent with the individual’s already held values. Therefore, liberals believe different conspiracy theories than conservatives because they often hold divergent values regarding societal political organization.

One of the first works examining the psychological determinants of belief in conspiracy theories was published by Hofstede and he stated that paranoia was mainly responsible for this belief. Since then, numerous studies have been carried out to understand what personality traits foster adherence to conspiracy theories and this research has demonstrated that the situation is more complex and that people who do not exhibit any divergent personality traits might also adhere to conspiracy theories. Therefore, a more nuanced understanding of the personality traits that foster it is required. In fact, recent studies have revealed that it is a combination of psychological and cognitive mechanisms that are in fact facilitators and aggravating factors for conspiracy theorists.  

Psychological factors conducive to belief in conspiracy theories

Conspiracism ideation can be associated with paranoia. As the experiments performed by Brotherton & Eser (2015) and Darwin et al (2011) Swami et al. (2011, 2013) and Goertzel (1994) prove people with higher scores on the paranoid ideation scale are more vigilant by nature, as they constantly look for signs of hostility directed against them and might misinterpret innocent coincidences or sequences of events as conspiracies, and they are also less likely to accept official explanations for those events. However, mild paranoia is associated with other psychological traits: low self-efficacy (Brotherton & Eser 2015), low self-esteem (Brotherton & Eser 2015, van Prooijen & van Lange, 2014), dissatisfaction with life (Brotherton & Eser 2015), higher levels of anxiety (Vermeule & Sunstein 2009, Radnitz & Underwood, 2015, Brotherton & Eser, 2015), distrust of others (Goertzel, 1994), insecurity about elements of the environment (Goertzel, 1994, Moulding et al, 2016).

Conspiracy theorists also experience powerlessness in the face of random events that affect their lives to varying degrees (Brotherton & Eser, 2015). This leads to people needing to find explanations, even based on attribution errors, which place the blame and foster hostility to the outgroups, to those who are different, in any significant way, from the conspiracy theorist. Goertzel (1994) also found that anomia (defective moral sense) is associated with belief in conspiracy theories, because it reflects the feelings of alienation and disaffection with the system that conspiracy theorists experience. When resorting to conspiratorial explanations, people focus the blame on a tangible enemy, and thus the problems become less abstract and impersonal. Moulding et al (2016) further explained the relation between anomia and conspiracy theories by positing that conspiracists observe that moral standards are not fixed, they are ever-changing according to the temporal and situational considerations, therefore reaching the conclusion that the world is a bad place that actually conspires to hurt them.

This is doubled by the fact that the human mind tends to look for intentional causation based on perceived benefits for certain parties (Vermeule & Sunstein, 2009, Radnitz & Underwood, 2015), which conspiracy theories so readily provide in the guise of the villainous conspirators whose aim is to destroy the lives of the unaware masses to serve their own interests. There is a pervasive human tendency to think that effects are caused by intentional action, especially by those who stand to benefit (the “cui bono?” maxim), and for this reason conspiracy theories have considerable but unwarranted appeal. (Vermeule & Sunstein 2009, Radnitz & Underwood, 2015, Oliver & Wood, 2014). Brotherton (2015) explains that this search for the culprit in complex or random situations is an expression of the need for control and order, as it is easier for people to accept that there is an intention behind those events, even if it is malevolent, than to accept randomness. This is an instance of compensatory control. Moreover, conspiracy theories also serve as readily available and easily understandable answers to complex issues, and provide a scapegoat or blame target, but not haphazardly. They reflect the ideological foundation that the supporters of the respective conspiracy theories share, and they divide the world into simple dichotomies such as us vs them, irrespective of who they might be in that particular instance (migrants, political parties, foreign governments, multinational corporations, etc.). These feelings of being oppressed, or excluded, or duped create strong community bonds among conspiracy theorists, as the victimized group.

Douglas & Sutton (2018) further refine the search of psychological traits that foster conspiracism as they focus on one particular aspect of social anxiety, namely anxious attachment, which is correlated with a preoccupation for security, negative views of outsiders, sensitivity to threats and overestimations of threats. Moreover, they also identify the need for uniqueness (the need or desire to be different from other people) as a predictor of belief in conspiracy theories.

Cognitive factors conducive to belief in conspiracy theories 

The human brain does not handle not knowing or not understanding well, even in complex and incomprehensible situations. It actively searches for an explanation or for a solution so that at least apparent control over the situation is exerted. Brotherton (2015) explains that this is due to a “metacognitive glitch”, that drives the brain to fill in any blanks with familiarity and beliefs rather than actual knowledge, in the guise of better or poorer guesses if nothing else is available. In order to do so the brain operates with several cognitive mechanisms that could not only provide understanding quickly, but could also make people more prone to believing conspiracy theories. Among these Cassam (2021) identified the intentionality bias which refers to the tendency to assume things happen because they were intended rather than accidental; the confirmation bias which entails the tendency to look for evidence that supports what one already believes while ignoring contrary evidence; and the proportionality bias which presupposes the tendency to assume that the scale of an event’s cause must match the scale of the event as such (also supported by research performed by Brotherton & French 2014, Kahneman & Tversky 1972).

These mechanisms aid the formation of connections and the identification of patterns without conscious control. Causal relationships are established in light of what people believe rather than what they know or the facts available to them, because the human brain has been evolutionary trained to notice coincidence but try to infer a cause, based on what is already available to it. And beliefs are an integral part of human cognition and they are more stable and more widely applicable than facts. Therefore, they are an available source for explanations, no matter how spurious they may be for a certain situation. This cognitive mechanism is known as the conjunction fallacy (Tversky & Kahneman 1983) and it is an error of probabilistic reasoning which leads people to overestimate the likelihood of events occurring together. Brotherton & French 2014 conducted research to evaluate the extent to which the conjunction fallacy is related to conspiracism and discovered that people who believe in conspiracy theories committed more conjunction violations (spurious assignation of causation) than people who were less prone to conspiracist ideation.

Moreover, Brotherton (2015), Douglas & Sutton (2018), Douglas & Sutton (2011), explain that the brain employs the mechanisms of intention detector and projection. Projection refers to the fact that people try to understand what others are thinking and/or doing not solely based on the latter’s actions, but on what they would do if they were in that situation, on putting themselves into other people’s shoes. However, this brings about the projection, sometimes faulty, of one’s own beliefs and emotions on other people who might actually not relate to them. The distorted lens of projection may lead to an understanding of a situation that creates a false consensus, does not allow for differences and randomness and may, in certain situations, reinforce the us vs them dichotomy. As Douglas & Sutton (2011, 547) explain “these results revealed that personal willingness to engage in the conspiracies predicted endorsement of conspiracy theories. Machiavellianism also predicted endorsement of conspiracy theories. Finally, the relationship between Machiavellianism and conspiracy beliefs was fully mediated by participants’ willingness to engage in the conspiracies themselves.”

Pytlik et al (2020) also identified the cognitive mechanism of jumping to conclusions (a fast, heuristic thinking style) as a predictor for conspiracism, more precisely for people’s tendency to believe that conspiracies are the roots of important society altering events. Jumping to conclusions is also associated with trust in one’s intuition, which leads to accepting “simple, yet satisfying narratives”, involving a small group of individuals who pull the strings in society, which conspiracy theories provide. Analytical examination of the facts to ponder upon the ways in which various entities interact to create any given situation is time consuming and effortful, which is why jumping to conclusions, with the readily available explanations that result from this type of thinking, is more easily acceptable than admitting that one might not know or understand everything. Radnitz & Underwood (2015) came to the similar conclusion, that when faced with uncertainty and ambiguity, people make “snap judgements” with respect to assigning trust.

Prooijen & Jostmann (2013) examined the explanatory function of conspiracy theories. They reflect a systematic method of information processing, which forms a clear connection between evil conspiracies and threatening events, thus turning into sense-making processes that help people manage the uncertainty and the immorality they perceive exists in the world. “Uncertainty makes people more attentive to the morality of the actions of authorities when making sense of a threat to the social order. As such, uncertainty increases the extent to which people make inferences about the plausibility and the implausibility of conspiracy theories based on the morality of authorities’ actions” (Prooijen & Jostmann 2013, 110). The world thus returns to being predictable, orderly, comprehensible, that is reflective of their monological belief system (see conspiracy theories characteristics).

Clarke (2002) explains that it is difficult for people to relinquish conspiracy theories because of “a fundamental attribution error” that they commit. He proposes that the reason why conspiracy theories are more attractive explanations than non-conspiratorial ones lies in the distinction between dispositional explanations of behavior – based on personality features, and situational ones – based on the characteristics of a situation, and on the fact that, more often than not, people overestimate the importance of the former to the detriment of the latter. More precisely, dispositional explanations are perceived as being more in tune with how people think and react, with their intentions, and also exhibiting more temporal continuity. “Dispositional explanations can relate the occurrence of events within the context of an intended plan” (Clarke 2002 146) usually based on an attribution error with respect to various individuals’ intentions. Meanwhile, situational explanations only appear to function in a limited context, they usually form the bases of official accounts of a situation and can lack unificatory power, as they cannot be projected beyond those coordinates.  

Main challenges in countering conspiracy theories

The need to counter conspiracy theories stems from the fact that their effects on society are grave. They challenge truth, and consensual truth matters greatly in a society as it is the foundation on which constructive and progressive dialogue is built. Without such dialogue, democratic societies at least are thwarted in their development by the polarization of the citizens who find themselves unable or unwilling to interact with others who have diverging opinions. If there is no common denominator of understanding and no common reference points, then debate becomes impossible, and arguments deteriorate into quarrels. All aspects of societal knowledge and function can be affected by conspiracy theories: science is altered when people believe that scientists are actually corrupted representatives of big corporations, the democratic processes suffer when people exercise their voting rights based on conspiracy theories and not facts and data, society is harmed when policies are enacted not based on knowledge but on conspirational beliefs, international relations suffer when disinformation outweighs facts and real events.

As dangerous as they are, the main challenges regarding conspiracy theories stem from the fact that they are difficult to counter. Despite the fact that their consequences for society are perilous indeed, they also appear very resistant to being debunked. Researchers into the field are unanimous in their assessment that effective debunking strategies of conspiracy theories should be multifaceted and include both a political and an intellectual dimension (Cassam 2021) to which others argue that an emotional component should also be attached as conspiracy theories reflect identity forming beliefs and, therefore, supporters are likely to feel aggrieved when facing counterarguments.

1. The intellectual dimension of a debunking strategy should focus on constantly rebutting the theories, by telling the truth. The truth may not dissuade die-hard conspiracy theorists, but may make it clear for the undecided that the conspiracy theory does not actually account for the events as they took place. West (2018) explains that rebuttal should be reinforced by the constant reference to the trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of the sources that conspiracy theorists gather their information from. If the source can be shown to be wrong on any account, then they might begin to question its reliability on all accounts. Moreover, conspiracy theorists should be exposed to new, accurate information constantly, so as to challenge their beliefs and possibly make them reassess them.

2. The political dimension of the debunking strategy should focus on exposure of any political interests the conspiracy theory might be serving, thus proving that it is part of political propaganda and not the truth. The ideological component of the conspiracy theory should be revealed and criticized, and people should be made aware of the fact that the respective theories are merely a political tool for a certain interested party to attain a benefit. Vermeule & Sustein (2009) explain that in order not to trigger a backfire effect and make a conspiracy theory even more popular during attempts to debunk it, authorities should not focus on debunking one particular such theory, but rather an ensemble of such theories, more precisely their points of commonality. Moreover, education with respect to debunking conspiracy theories and any form of disinformation should start as early as possible so as to prepare future citizens with the instruments they need to accurately assess the information they are presented with, and separate facts from lies and misconceptions.

3. West (2018) provides a personal interaction dimension to the strategy of debunking conspiracy theories. He proposes three steps that could be undertaken to this end:
a) Maintain effective dialogue which means that the debunker needs to understand what the conspiracy theorists are thinking and why, to be polite, respectful, open, to attempt to find common ground so as to validate their concerns if not their manifestations. Aggressive behavior will sever all lines of communication and have the backfire effect of actually strengthening conspiracy theorists’ views.
b) Supply useful information which could counter the backfire effect, by showing the conspiracy theorists what mistakes they have made, why their sources may not be reliable, what information about the topic they missed, and what other details on the topic are available, thus helping them gain perspective.
c) Give it time means that the change cannot and does not take place immediately, and that patience and reiteration are required.

Of these three stages, arguably the most important is to build back common ground. As previously mentioned, the greatest challenge with conspiracy theories is that they erode the common ground vitally important for communication and progress in a society. A polarized society cannot reach consensus on anything, as dialogue is impossible with no common framework of understanding of how the world functions. Dennett (2014) offers a three-step process to enable the rebuilding of common ground:
a) Re-express the conspiracy theorists’ position better than they do themselves, based on the principle of charity. This means that by restating the argument even better than initially presented, the debunker proves understanding, does the work to make the conspiracist details actually work, so that when the flaws are revealed, the conspiracy theorists are more likely to listen to them because they come from a person who understood them and what they were saying, that had built common ground.
b) List points of agreement, especially uncommon points, through a gradual exploratory process, that will slowly and patiently take the debunker through the arguments, until such commonalities are identified. They could be specific or general, but they are almost always there, and they once more set a stable common ground from which to start. If in the respective conspiracy theory none such points could be identified, then another more uncontroversial topic could be explored so as to have the needed starting point of agreement.
c) Mention anything that you have learned from the conspiracy theorists as this increases rapport, proves that real communication has taken place, and thus common ground is reinforced. This step might also include a validation of the conspiracy theorists’ genuine concerns so that they feel heard and understood, rather than high-handedly dismissed.

Vermeule & Sustein (2009) also suggest a more radical and somewhat difficult to implement tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity” (Vermeule & Sunstein, 2009, 219). However, this would be a very dangerous tactic to apply, because if the infiltrated agent were to be uncovered, then the group would take it as further proof that there is a governmental conspiracy at work, which would radicalize their belief in the conspiracy theory even further.

Debunking conspiracy theories may be difficult and very time-consuming, however, it is more needed than ever, as people seem more likely than ever to hide in their respective bubbles and break all forms of communication with anyone who disagrees with them. Such polarization, not solely along political lines, but also along understanding of facts and relation to reality, can only lead to dysfunctional societies. 

Case study 1 - The Great Dacians whose history is denied

Historical records show that the Dacians lived in the space currently occupied by Romania. The Roman policy was to quell any possible riots on the edges of its empire, and the Dacians’ resistance to Roman conquest is documented. Moreover, the Romans had heard rumors of the Dacian gold, and they needed to restore their financial resources. Consequently, emperor Traian decided to attack Dacia. The Roman legions arrived south of the Danube in 101 AD and crossed the river in three places. The Dacian ruler, Decebal, was waiting for them at Tapae. After an initial victory, the Dacians are defeated and they become Roman subjects under Decebal’s rule. However, as Decebal does not respect the terms of the peace treaty and attempts mutiny, the Roman legions return in 105 AD and conquer all of the main Dacian strongholds, including Sarmisegetusa, the capital. The Dacians are defeated and Decebal kills himself. The Romans conquer a part of Dacia, of the southern and western territories. The Romans remained in Dacia until 271 AD.

An example of a conspiracy theory that is specifically Romanian can be summarized as “Romania is the birthplace of Europe” , as the Dacians are the ancestors of most civilizations on earth. The Dacians are the ones who migrated west and eventually formed the Roman Empire, as well as east, reaching as far as Japan and India. Moreover, they are the inventors of writing (the Tartaria tablets are the first written records), the wheel, the plough, the cart, mining equipment, among others. The Thracians and the Dacians (a subgroup of the former) represent the oldest and highest culture on earth, precursor of the Sumerian civilization, and also the most numerous (180-200 tribes), spread all over Europe, Asia and Africa .

The proponents of this theory base their claims on a) alleged linguistic incongruities and b) depictions of Dacians in Roman sculptures.

As far as linguistic incongruities are concerned, they are meant to explain away one of the main counterarguments against this conspiracy theory, namely that Romanian is decidedly a Latin language. The problem conspiracy theorists have with the official historical narrative is that Dacia was not entirely conquered, and it was under occupation for a relatively short period of time (approximately 170 years). Therefore, it is not possible that almost the entire Dacian language was lost, the Dacians having learnt vulgar Latin to interact with the conquerors, and only sporadic words remain. The conspiracy theorists’ claim is that actually Dacian was an older version of Latin and for this reason, when the Romans arrived in Dacia, they did not have to assimilate the Dacian population and their language as they were already quite similar. What the conspiracy theorists do not take into account is that the Dacians needed to communicate with the Romans, thus they learnt their language. They also intermingled and spread the new language to other tribes as well, as a means of boosting commerce.

Secondly, the depictions of Dacians in Roman post-conquest sculptures in Rome, show them as standing tall and proud and still wearing their specific headgear, which, if they had been truly conquered, they would have been forced to remove as a symbol of their humiliation. However, the fact that they were allowed to keep it, as the statues prove, means that in fact the Romans did not conquer Dacia, but rather forged an alliance with them, in which they recognized the Dacians as their forefathers and their merits in the formation of the Roman Empire.

This conspiracy theory is an example of nationalist photochromism and has no foundation in historical documents. It is also fueled by Romanian exceptionalism and by a part of the population’s belief that foreign malevolent forces are constantly attempting to keep Romanian superiority, ingenuity, greatness hidden and strive to harm Romanian development so as not to affect their own interests. This conspiracy theory views Romanians as both exceptionally gifted as well as eternal victims of plots to undermine their greatness and their development. Victimization and blame assignation are the fuel that drive this conspiracy theory 

Case study 2 - The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia 

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a very well-known Maltese reporter, editor, columnist and blogger. Her blog Running Commentary had a very high reach, comparable to the main media houses in Malta. Her continuous challenging of political power structures through her reporting on corruption, sleaze and crime, made her both liked and disliked by many. Throughout her career, Daphne Caruana Galizia received threats and was the target of several forms of harassment because of her journalism. On 16 October 2017 Daphne was assassinated by the triggering of an explosive device planted under her car seat outside her home in Bidnija, Malta. The investigation of her assassination further exposed the corruption of the government and institutions who were accused in a public inquiry of having created an atmosphere of impunity .

A Maltese businessman, Yorgen Fenech was charged with having been the mastermind behind her assassination, but the trial is still ongoing. Three other people, Alfred and George Degiorgio and Vince Muscat were convicted of making, planting and detonating the car bomb that killed the journalist. In spite of the fact that the Police Commissioner has declared that all suspects in the case have been arrested and many of them have already been convicted, the case is still causing many controversies.

One such controversy is the conspiracy theory developed by Simon Mercieca, an Associate Professor at the University of Malta who employs his blog Simon Mercieca’s FreePress to share a number of fake news and conspiracy theory on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from Maltese politics to COVID-19. According to him, Yorgen Fenech is innocent, while Daphne’s assassination was organised by her husband (Peter Caruana Galizia) and her son (Matthew Caruana Galizia). According to his theory, the Caruana Galizia family is “hampering the investigation process and the court’s operations so that the whole truth behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder will never be known. To achieve this scope, main witnesses of the prosecution, including Matthew Caruana Galizia are using the media and giving interviews to siphon issues to fit their agenda and condition the public.”

Mercieca’s theory has all the usual characteristics of conspiracy theories. Firstly, it is speculative. There is no actual evidence that the Caruana Galizia family is hampering the court’s operations, nor that they have in any way deceived the prosecution or the public. Mercieca claims that Daphne’s son, Matthew, decided to take the law into his hands and destroy potential key evidence, albeit there was never any official information to support this claim. The key word in this theory is potential. Mercieca’s theory relies on conclusions which are drawn based on circumstantial evidence, offering an explanation that is different from the official media reports and from the evidence presented in court. This leads to the second conspiracy theory characteristic – it is contrarian. Mercieca capitalises on the fact that the Maltese public is still divided on the subject of Daphne’s assassination, with some groups arguing that the investigation and prosecution have not been carried out in the most transparent and efficient manner. However, instead of aligning himself with those who sought justice for the journalist’s assassination and her family, his conspiracy theory argues the opposite that while justice has not been served the victim has been the Maltese businessman accused of murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia, namely Yorgen Fenech. He claims that Daphne’s family have intentionally hindered the investigation and sought to gain money from the investigation, by putting the blame on a well-known Maltese businessman. Moreover, he argues that Daphne’s family didn’t put pressure on the authorities to bring Yorgen Fenech to justice, in the hope that as more time passes they will be able to build the case on false information and hide traces that could lead back to them. This argument goes against official information and ignores existence evidence gathered in the case and presented during the criminal trial, including the testimonies of the people convicted for making, planting and detonating the car bomb that killed the journalist. Instead, the theory develops a scenario of demonization, whereby the real “malevolent forces” involved in the case are Daphne’s family, who not only harmed Daphne but are now harming Yorgen Fenech and the Maltese society in general.

This conspiracy theory shows how, by taking a complex situation, one may very easily build a theory that will be widely spread on the premise of a simplistic view assigning intentionality to Daphne’s family to not only harm her but the whole Maltese society. This conspiracy theory is built around self-sealing conclusions, built on information taken out of context, which makes it hard to refute. Moreover, the conspiracy theories are built one upon another, as in Mercieca uses the idea of “malevolent forces” seeking to discredit him (e.g. they would say that, wouldn’t they?) as an argument against all criticism received in relation to the other ideas promoted. This can also be seen as an indicator that he does not have any other counter-arguments/evidence that he can bring in support of his theories 

Case study 3 - Conspiracy theories on the August 17 terrorist attacks

On August 17, 2017, the worst terrorist attacks in Spain, since the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, took place in the Catalonian towns of Barcelona and Cambrils, with 16 deaths and more that 120 wounded. The attacks temporarily coincided with preparations for the 1 October illegal referendum conducted by Catalonian secessionist parties and the Catalonian local administration.

In this context, some national and local news media, together with pro-independence political actors introduced the idea of a covert participation of Spanish intelligence in the attacks. The conspiracy theory was compounded by the decision made by the highest Spanish court (Audiencia Nacional) that rejected the request made by one of the victims' lawyers (and pro-secessionist member of the Catalonian parliament) to investigate the alleged connections. These two events led to the creation of the basis of an alternative explanatory theory.

This conspiracy theory has had different versions but in essence all of its iterations attribute the responsibility of the attack to the Spanish state through its intelligence services. Sometimes, alternative theories point out to direct implication, but other versions of this conspiracy theory authorities and security services are accused of negligence and lack of action when counting with intelligence on the impending attacks. As far-fetched as it may appear, this malicious narrative can be captured in the following sentence:
“The sewer of the state work to harm Catalonia”

It is easy to note the similarity of this conspiracy theory to those related to the “Deep state” that have circulated in other countries.  

Descripton of the facts 

The events began on August 17, 2017 on the Paseo de Las Ramblas in Barcelona where at 5:00 p.m. a van ran into a crowd of passers-by. On board was a single driver who managed to flee. Hours later, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through the Amaq news agency. During the early morning of August 18, in the nearby town of Cambrils (Tarragona), another vehicle broke into the promenade, and ran over five pedestrians and a policeman. The vehicle was intercepted, and the terrorists shot dead .
These events were connected to the explosion of the previous day (August 16) in a house of Alcanar (Tarragona, Spain). Two people died because of those explosions, including Abdelbaki Es Satty, leader of the cell and imam of Ripoll as it was later discovered. Another terrorist who was later tried for the attacks was wounded . According to the instructions carried out and the content of the judicial sentence, a large attack with “van bombs” was being prepared in the Alcanar house. The explosion precipitated the subsequent attack in the Ramblas, and Cambrils since there was an ongoing police investigation and perpetrators knew they might get arrested. 

Origin of the conspiracy theory

On 16 July 2019, almost two years after the attacks, a well-known Spanish digital newspaper published the results of a journalistic investigation reporting alleged evidence on the fact that the terrorist cell was being subject to surveillance by Spanish intelligence and that the Imam of Ripoll was a human source for the Spanish National Intelligence Centre (CNI). The journalistic pieces included images of a hypothetical surveillance report prepared by the Spanish intelligence, as well as the messages allegedly exchanged between the imam and the service through the dead drop system. 

Elements exploited to manufacture the alt version 

Conspiracy beliefs have also been linked to the need for cognitive closure (Marchlewska, Cichocka and Kossowska, 2018; Leman and Cinnirella, 2013), especially when events lack a clear official explanation (cited in Douglas et al., 2019, 7). This is valid for this case study analysis in which the need for knowledge and clarifications on the terrorist attacks acts as a catalyst for the spread of this conspiracy theory. In the absence of all pieces of information – something not unusual in criminal and intelligence research – different actors, sometimes with political interests, fill the gaps with unsupported assumptions.

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Ivan, Cristina; Chiru, Irena; Buluc, Ruxandra; Radu, Aitana; Anghel, Alexandra; Stoian-Iordache, Valentin; Arcos, Rubén; Arribas, Cristina M.; Ćuća, Ana; Ganatra, Kanchi; Gertrudix, Manuel; Modh, Ketan; Nastasiu, Cătălina. (2023). HANDBOOK on Identifying and Countering Disinformation. DOMINOES Project https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7893952